3-D printing: The next desktop revolution

I suspect there are more than a few readers who remember how printing and publishing changed dramatically in the 1980s as desktop computers and print-ready files displaced phototypesetters and camera-ready artwork. Many of us went from the hazards of darkroom chemistry to that of workstation ergonomics; I remember being unceremoniously lifted from the comfort of my paste-up boards, horizontal camera and film processor and dropped into the world of SyQuest disks, Apple system “bombs” and PostScript (infinite-loop) errors.

Steve Jobs Press Conference January 23 1985

Steve Jobs at the press conference where the first desktop publishing system was announced on January 23, 1985.

Actually, the birth of desktop publishing (a term coined by Paul Brainerd of Aldus Corporation) and its disruptive impact can be traced to a specific date. On January 23, 1985, at a press conference following an annual stockholder’s meeting of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs announced the first desktop publishing system. It consisted of the following component technologies:

  • Personal computer (Apple Macintosh)
  • Page layout software (Aldus PageMaker)
  • Laser printer (Canon/Apple LaserWriter)
  • Page description language (Adobe PostScript)

It is safe to say that few understood the meaning of what happened that day. For the first time, text and graphics were placed on a page simultaneously and imaged on paper as reproduction “copy” or as a final printed sheet. The breakthrough of desktop publishing was that it was possible for just about anyone—with a modest investment—to become a publisher. The full impact of desktop publishing would be realized over the next decade as it transformed several industries and was a significant element in the evolution of the World Wide Web.

Chris Anderson MakersWith the benefit of hindsight, Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail and former editor of Wired magazine) discusses the long-term implications of the desktop phenomenon in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. “Remember, at that time publishing used to mean manufacturing in every sense of the word, from the railways that brought huge rolls of paper and barrels of ink to the printing plant … Taking publishing out of the factories liberated it. But the real impact of this was not in paper, but in the idea of ‘publishing’ online. Once people were given the power of the press, they wanted to do more than print out newsletters. So, when the web arrived, ‘publishing’ became ‘posting’ and they could reach the world.”

Today Anderson believes that we are living through a similar paradigm shift. But this time it is in the world of physical objects and the making of things. Today’s Maker Movement—the design and manufacture of things by individuals instead of industrial corporations—is with personal computers, CAD software and desktop 3-D printers and other equipment like laser cutters and CNC machines.

Form 1 desktop 3-D printer

Desktop 3-D printers take geometric data from CAD software and fabricate objects out of liquid plastic or resin

Distinct from the desktop printers that produce 2-D black and white or full color images on sheets of paper, a 3-D printer uses electronic geometries and turns them into objects that you can pick up and hold in your hand. Desktop 3-D printers usually extrude molten plastic in layers of liquid or powder resin. They can typically put down plastic material in thin layers (.33 of a millimeter) in processes like fusion deposition modeling (FDM), stereo lithography (SLA) or selective laser sintering (SLS).

3-D printers are an “additive” manufacturing technology; they build up objects from nothing, layer by layer. This is distinct from older industrial techniques—like “subtractive” routers and mills—in which spinning raw material is cut or ground away to reveal the object. Although they are newer and undergoing rapid development, additive 3-D printers have the advantage of producing little or no waste in the production process.

3D Print Sales Chart

Market size by 3-D printing sector application in US$ million

According to a recent report by IDTechEx, large-scale 3-D printing surpassed revenues of $1 billion in 2012 and growth is expected to quadruple by 2025. Industries that are heavy users of 3-D printing technologies are medical and dental, automotive and aerospace. The promise of the 3-D print is that it opens up inexpensive variability and complexity to the mass manufacturing process. For example, 3-D print used in the manufacture of prosthetics and orthopedic implants makes possible mass customization based on patient CT or MRI scan data.

Some believe—including Chris Anderson—that the digital Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Maker Movement are generating a much bigger market than that of the large-scale commercial applications. The aggregate value of the design and manufacture of entirely custom products in medium to small (or even single) quantities is potentially greater than the manufacture of mass consumer products where each item is identical.

This is a business concept that everyone in the printing industry is very familiar with. We have been dealing with the economics of the digital print for two decades and understand very well that the cost per unit of a digital print product (custom) versus conventional offset printing (mass production). The cost per unit in digital print is “flat,” i.e. it do not rise or fall based upon a decrease or increase in quantity or a change in complexity, whereas the cost of the setup (make-ready) of a traditional offset print project is amortized across the entire print run.


The relationship between the cost per unit and the quantity of mass manufacturing (injection molding) versus digital fabrication (3-D printing).

Anderson explains it this way, “Digital fabrication inverts the economics of traditional manufacturing. In mass production, most of the costs are in up-front tooling, and the more complicated the product is and the more changes you make, the more it costs. But with digital fabrication, it’s the reverse: the things that are expensive in traditional manufacturing become free.”

We can rightfully question Chris Anderson’s assertion that digital desktop fabrication heralds the beginning of new industrial revolution on the magnitude of that which occurred in the nineteenth century. However, there is no doubting his commitment. Anderson recently left his position after more than ten years as editor of Wired magazine to become full-time CEO of the firm he founded called 3D Robotics that manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

As we think about the meaning of 3-D printing technology today, it is important to reflect back upon the desktop revolution of the 1980s. We should recall that many in the publishing industry viewed the nascent desktop system—inspired by Steve Jobs of Apple, Paul Brainerd of Aldus and Chuck Geschke and John Warnock of Adobe—as not measuring up to the professional requirements of the day. Many who initially dismissed desktop publishing as a fad and resisted the transition away from mechanical graphic arts technologies would later live to regret that perception.

The promise of 3-D printing is significant. Perhaps Chris Anderson will not be alone in the migration from the printing and publishing industries to that of digital fabrication, DIY manufacturing and the Maker Movement.


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